Henry Joy McCracken (1767-1798) was a radical Presbyterian who, together with Theobald Wolfetone (1763-1798) and Robert Emmet (1778-1803), founded the United Irishmen, a secret society fighting against British occupation of Ireland. A leading figure in the struggle for independence, McCracken remains an emblematic figure in Irish history to this day. He was, however, executed for his participation in the Rebellions of 1798.
McCracken spent his youth in Belfast, where he was born, and grew up in a rather well-to-do Presbyterian family. A good student, he received his parents’ support for a brilliant education, and soon discovered the world of politics.
Very quickly, he met major figures such as Robert Emmet (1778-1803) and the great Theobald Wolfetone (1763-1798), two men already heavily involved in the fight against the British presence on Irish soil. The three of them decided to found the United Irishmen (United Irish Society), a clandestine society whose exclusively Protestant members were plotting to undermine the British presence in Ireland. They also form an army of more than 80,000 men.
Very quickly, the British authorities learned of the existence of this secret society and declared it immediately illegal. The British were then given the task of tracking down members of the United Irishmen, of which Henry McCracken was naturally a member.
McCracken decided to travel all over Ireland to flee the authorities: it was not money that he lacked: McCracken had invested in the cotton industry from an early age and was one of the rich industrialists of the time.
After several months on the run, McCracken was finally arrested in October 1796, and was held in the Kilmainham Gaol prison. The deplorable conditions of detention soon led to health problems that weakened him enormously. He was finally released on bail in December 1797.
In 1798, Henry Joy McCracken resumed his activities: he took an active part in the 1798 Rebellion and was responsible for planning most military operations. A fine strategist, he was initially very successful in battle, but eventually saw his army fall during several very violent battles.
Aware of this terrible failure, McCracken fled again but was finally captured and court-martialed. He was offered a lenient sentence on condition that he agreed to testify against other members of the United Irishmen. Loyal to his cause, McCracken refused, and was finally sentenced to death.
He was hanged in the Kilmainham Gaol prison on July 17, 1798.